As I wrote this post, the Catholic University of America was preparing to celebrate Homecoming, when over 1,500 alumni and their guests returned to their alma mater. The weekend itself is a joyful occasion, a chance for classmates to catch up with one another and see what has occurred in the time since graduation. While life often takes alumni down different paths, Homecoming offers everyone the opportunity to reconnect with the place that, and the people who, helped launch the next chapter, whether it was one of service, religious vocation, family life, and/or employment. Homecoming itself reflects the willingness of the University to throw open its doors to welcome back all, no matter how long they’ve been gone or why they stayed away.
It’s a tried-and-true model and it’s along these lines that the Church opens her doors to those who might have fallen away, whether because of a poor experience or because of a lack of interest or engagement. Initiatives such as “Catholics Come Home,” or the Archdiocese of Washington’s “The Light is On For You,” and similar diocesan programs nationwide, seek to welcome back Catholics who have been absent from the life of the Church. The projected tone and nature of these programs is of authentic openness and welcome — free of any judgement or bitterness. The goal is to encourage those who have been away to re-encounter the perfect love and understanding of our Lord as manifested and offered by His Church.
The doors of the Catholic Church are open year-round for those seeking something better than what the world offers but there are moments in the liturgical calendar which emphasize and focus on refreshing one’s spiritual life such as Advent and Lent. Similarly, the invitation to participate in or observe the sacraments being celebrated can be an emotional catalyst for one to come back or renew his or her baptismal promise. Emotions, such as the awe of witnessing a reverent First Communion or religious profession, the joy of a marriage, or the hopeful rawness of a funeral, can move one to respond to a previously suppressed or unrecognized call to reconciliation with the Church. These “moments of return” can awaken a longing for an interior peace that only the Lord can provide. As Pope Francis encourages:
Maybe someone … is thinking: my sin is so great, I am as far from God as the younger son in the parable [of the Prodigal Son], my unbelief is like that of Thomas; I don’t have the courage to go back, to believe that God can welcome me and that he is waiting for me, of all people. But God is indeed waiting for you; he asks of you only the courage to go to him… I have always pleaded, “Don’t be afraid; go to him; he is waiting for you; he will take care of everything.” We hear many offers from the world around us, but let us take up God’s offer instead: his is a caress of love.
Archbishop Sheen, the great evangelizer who brought millions around the world into an encounter with the Lord via his weekly TV program, Life is Worth Living, encourages us to seek out those who have everything to gain by entering into Christ’s body on earth but are currently missing out:
What was the first word of our Lord’s public life? That’s the key to preaching. It was ‘come.’ Come. Come to Me. Be enflamed with my Truth. Be on fire with my Love. And what was the last word of our Lord’s public life? It was ‘Go!’ First we come, then we go! (Sheen, “The Art of Preaching,” 1972)
Just as the gift of faith was freely shared with each of us, how enthusiastically, then, we must go and share the Good News with everyone on the highways and byways — we cannot keep it to ourselves! As we begin to prepare for the celebration of our Lord’s birth during the Advent season in a few weeks, why not invite someone to join you for the beginning of a new liturgical year — and the beginning (or rediscovery) of something deep within that person that can only be the desire to know our Savior. By doing so, by planting the seed of the Word in people’s minds and hearts, by boldly meeting people where they are in life rather than waiting for them to come to us, each of us who are sharers in the Church’s ministry can cause much rejoicing in heaven (Luke 15:1-7). Let us embrace those who have been away for a long time, crying out, “Welcome home!”
In my Bible study, we are reading through the Second Letter to the Corinthians from St. Paul. The last session covered Chapter Five. It deals with the current and future destiny of our bodies.
For we know that if our earthly dwelling, a tent, should be destroyed, we have a building from God, a dwelling not made with hands, eternal in heaven.
In verse one, Paul says our earthly dwelling is a tent. What is the tent? Even in his day, most people didn't live in tents. They had stone or wood houses. Clearly that can't be what Paul meant. In fact, he is referring to the earthly body as a tent, and the heavenly body as a building.
In the Old Testament, the Israelites traveled with the Holy of Holies, the place where the Presence of God was pleased to dwell in a special and unique way, in the form of a tent structure. It's portable, appropriate for a sojourning people. When they finally reached the Promised Land, King Solomon built the Temple out of stone and precious metals. It was a structure of permanence and stability; it declared this is where God is and He isn't moving. A tent is a much flimsier home than a stone building. Yes, they are both dwelling places, but stone is harder to destroy than cloth, and more secure. There is, to borrow a phrase from Alice in Wonderland, a muchness to stone, a weight and solidity that tents don't have.
In the Transfiguration scene in Luke 9: 28-36, Jesus' face and clothing are changed. Scholars take this to mean that we will have our same bodies, the one the soul is united with right now as you read these words, for all eternity. For better or worse. In Heaven, the body shall be glorified and refined, receiving a muchness that we don't have now. In Hell, the body shall be as damned as the soul, in anguish just as fitting.
In the ancient world, this concept of retaining your physical body after death would have been flabbergasting. Most philosophical traditions saw the body as something other than the true self. It was something to be punished, or used for mere pleasure, but importantly gotten rid of, so the spirit-self could be free.
Christianity says otherwise. We, human beings, are body-soul composites. Matter and spirit united into one creature. And that is good. If we were pure matter, we would be like the inanimate universe, or at best like animals. If we were pure spirit, we would be angels. We are neither. We are a unity of the two most opposite things in the universe, and God looks at us and says we are good.
There is a reversion of thought in our modern world that reflects the ancients: either the body doesn't matter at all and I just need to get rid of it because it's not really me, or it's all that matters because there is nothing else to me. It's sneaks into Christian minds as well. Which is devastating, on the psychological and spiritual levels. We should have a sense of home-ness in our bodies.
Have you ever met someone who just seemed uncomfortable in their own skin? As if they didn't know what to do with themselves? Have you ever been that person? We're often expected to get our act together. Be confident. Act normal. Own yourself. But you can't own selves, yours or anyone else's. That is a mask. And a mask is not a home.
Think now of the people whom you've met who were so solid and real and, in a word, themselves, that you felt comfortable enough to be yourself. Think of the people whose houses you walk into and sigh with peace and the knowledge that you are loved. Think of those whose arms embrace you and tell you it is good to be alive.
One of the best ways to love others is to love yourself. Treat yourself with dignity and respect. The Christian is commanded to love as Christ loved, and thus has the duty to be a holistically integrated human being more so than the rest of society. Be at home in your own skin, and allow others to be home in their own existence. We want visitors and guests to feel welcome in our homes, don’t we? Well, they can't unless we do; stability and hospitality begin in the heart. These virtues start to grow when we allow ourselves to become integrated and united, when all of our being is directed and following one Way with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your strength, and with all your soul.
Growing up, I thought little of my home parish as I dutifully climbed into the family car each weekend. Upon pulling into the parking lot, I would scan the cars around me to get a sense of who would be inside and who I would attempt to chat with after Mass. It was a similar situation inside the church and it often appeared that the same people occupied the same pews week after week. While waiting for Mass to begin, I would flip through the weekly bulletin to read my pastor’s notes, read the calendar of upcoming events, and note the changes in the parish pantry and collection amount. After Mass, I’d remain to chat with the celebrant and anyone I knew for a few minutes before going off into the rest of my week. I was surely aware of the opportunities available to me at the destination of my parish, but for me it was little more than just that: a destination.
Now that I’m older and have been blessed to have my faith deepened, I am more mindful of how the impact of being active in the life of my local church has supported me throughout each week. It’s like going through school: day in and day out is a routine, but after finishing, you’re able to look back and see the changes that have affected the rest of your life. At this point in my life, however, I am rarely back in my home diocese. I remain connected to life there through diocesan livestreams and social media. With the embrace of such technology, how easy and effective it has become to share news and coverage of the rich variety of events within the Church!
The ability to electronically minister to and participate in the life of the local church can also be employed to the service of the diocese’s well-being. Recently, I came across the launch video for my diocese’s new “Faith to Move Mountains” endowment campaign. In it, the bishop explained the current state of the local Church and the need to jumpstart a new and rather audacious level of diocesan-wide financial support in order to continue to provide the same or better quality of services to the community: “This is our Church,” he said, looking directly through the camera at me, “This is our home. We are bracing ourselves— getting ourselves ready— for the future.” It was then that I realized how much the diocese depended on each of its parishes, which then depend on the support of their respective congregations (i.e. me) for the fulfillment of its ministries in order to continuously bring about the world’s fruitful encounter with the Risen Lord. For all the good each of our local churches do for us, how can we repay in kind? Certainly by paying attention during Mass and attending the various catechetical, service, or social events advertised in the parish, but these are not givens to be taken for granted and they often incur a cost on the parish. As my bishop observed:
Catholic priests are there for the whole week. They’re there after the sermon is over after the Word is preached. Not just on Sunday mornings. They’re in our schools. They are at our hospital beds all hours of the day and night. They’re listening to our sins in the confessional. They’re counseling people… You won’t believe sometimes what people bring to the priest with the expectation that it’s going to be better when they walk out the door… Preaching the Gospel doesn’t cost a dime. Everything else, however, everything that our parishes need and try to do for you, our parishioners, carries a price.
The life of the Church is so very dependent on the full and active participation of its members. Not only when times are good, but especially when times are tough. Rather than running to the parking lot immediately after Mass, taking the time to personally befriend the priests and staff of the parish, continuing to participate in the charitable works of the church, supporting the businesses that sponsor ads in the weekly bulletin, and inviting others to join in doing so are some effective alternatives to simply cutting a check. Supporting each other through acts of service, stewardship and participate in parish events is at the heart of Christian goodwill. As each of us depends on the Church to guide us into Heaven, so does she look upon us to help her in her most noble evangelical enterprise of preaching the Gospel and serving the poor. I invite you to make your parish more than simply a destination. Do your part to help build a thriving parish community so that, together, you may all say, “this is our home!”